What would it be like to perform with awareness onstage with no advance preparation? David Ellzey reflects on his experience doing so at the Science and Non-duality conference and connects those onstage lessons with how we live on the stage of daily life.
Performing in the Emptiness of Infinite Awareness
The lights dimmed, the audience went quiet, and as I stood on stage I knew nothing of what I was about to do. I took a chance in front of three hundred people.
That night at The Science and Non-Duality Conference, with scientists, mystics, artists, and the public, something became clearer on this road of recognizing the boundless being that is our nature—and the source of all.
Since childhood, and for a few professional decades, I lived a fairly successful actor’s life on stage, TV, and film. However, integral to my path was studying the physical and unique art form of performing in silence. At 17 years old I studied pantomime with my teacher, Samuel Avital, who rooted his teaching in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah. We explored how to free ourselves to fashion universes out of the emptiness onstage. But the deeper study was in recognizing that the emptiness on stage was the same fertile emptiness out of which all existence rises. Thus, my study at seventeen years old was not just about performing, but was essentially the study of the source of life and of who I am.
That evening, based in this understanding that within emptiness is infinite potential, I walked onstage to perform my show, “Into The Unknown.” I tried something I’d never done: I chose to not know what I was going to perform – and to not use anything I already knew. Somehow I felt calm. In fact, I was excited to find out what was about to be revealed.
Let me explain exactly what did happen. I read out loud a quote by an eastern sage of non-duality, Nisargadatta. Then without planning I improvised a story based on his words. I received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Next I asked a friend to play a recorded three-minute piece of music of his choosing, unheard by me prior. Inspired by the music, I let my body improvise movement until it morphed into an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. Again, it was very warmly received.
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Awareness Lessons Learned Onstage and Off
After the show, many told me how courageous I was to perform from not knowing. How did I feel such ease, confidence, and even enjoyment in the unknown with hundreds witnessing my unplanned discoveries? First, I must acknowledge that I’ve performed since childhood and so my body has been well trained for creativity. I trust it. And second, I am deeply moved by the words of Nisargadatta. So the heart-felt inspiration was in place.
However, as interesting as that is, what is the parallel to life if you’re not a performer? First, let’s check. Other than the body, what do all of us have since birth that we can depend on? The answer is undeniable. We have awareness and presence. If they weren’t here, we wouldn’t be either.
This is simple and true onstage and off. This would be enough to live from, but the dilemma begins when we add our mental and emotional commentary. We then continue by unconsciously reassembling an imagined character from our memory that these thoughts and emotions supposedly refer to. Finally, we superimpose this recreated “me” on the simplicity of pure presence. This character is inherently threatened with a someday death, and thus, feels this impending danger all of its life. And this is who we mistakenly believe we are, rather than present and timeless awareness itself.
If that little me character had stepped onstage at the conference, the underlying constant would not have been flowing creativity and enjoyment, but rather that constrictive sense of impending doom. And so it is on the stage of life. Fear follows us everywhere on some underlying level because of this constantly reassembled me character and its fear of ending. Our true nature, unbound being, has nothing to fear. It’s infinitely creative, timeless, and is the source and substance of all.
Based on this understanding on stage that night, I sensed the unlimited fertility of the space and silence. I joyfully witnessed the body and heart orchestrated into a unique and inspiring story, and then received confirmation with a standing ovation. The performance resonated deeply with those witnessing. Why?
We all deeply crave relief from the false limitations of the illusory me. We long for the loving arms of the truth of our unlimited nature. Similar to my trained and trusted body on stage, our unbound nature is the dependable undercurrent of our existence. It alone offers the solace from the storm of suffering caused by identifying with our limitations.
Awareness Doesn’t Require Training
The difference between the body and awakened awareness is that awareness doesn’t require training. It is the underlying and ever-present source of all courage and love that can naturally fill every moment of our daily interactions, as it did for me onstage.
And just like the unity in the room that night, I recognize this unifying light in the heart and eyes of others looking back at me in daily life, whether in the subways of New York City, with the homeless on the street, or in meaningful friendships.
Thus onstage in the theater—and in life—we have the option of allowing the fearful little me to dissolve back into its calm source, like a restless wave feeling the relaxing relief of being reabsorbed into the boundless ocean. The richness of this experience itself becomes our continued inspiration, the delicious dissolving of the illusion of who we never truly were.
Then we can celebrate with our own standing ovation as we taste where all courage, creativity, and inspiration come from: Our own unbound nature. Finally we can fully rest as we realize that on the stage of life no preparation or rehearsal is needed. We are free. Indeed, as the eyes rest upon these very words, you are freedom itself.